Ask any adult about a time in high school when they were in an uncomfortable situation they wanted to get out of and you'll hear stories of underage drinking, entering abandoned buildings at night and other cringe-worthy experiences — ones that now make those adults feel a sense of panic about their own kids getting into the same tough spots.
It's normal for teens to fear punishment and harsh consequences from their parents if they confess to being in these types of scenarios, but many moms and dads are starting to prioritize what's actually important in these situations: a teen's safety.
Add in other tricky situations teens can find themselves in, like a strange relative at a friend's house making them feel uncomfortable or feeling pressured sleep over at a home where they feel unsafe, and it becomes clear that sometimes, parents need to give their teens a safe way to exit a dangerous social setting … without facing ridicule from their peers.
How to develop an exit strategy for your teen
Reddit user jtboe79 shared a post to the platform about a time when her teenage son was staying the night at a friend's house and she received text from him containing only a hotdog emoji. The food-themed emoji seemingly came out of nowhere, but she and her family had developed a plan: A random emoji text meant, "I want to come home, but I want it to be your fault." The Redditor went to work, calling her son to pretend he had "lost the privilege" of spending the night due to chores he had neglected to do back at home.
"I called him and told him, 'You were supposed to unload the dishwasher before you left,'" she wrote in the post. "'I'll be there in five minutes, have your stuff gathered up.'" Once her son was safe in the car, he confided in his mother that the friend's grandfather was making him feel uncomfortable and he didn't want to stay overnight.
"We have a pretty open relationship and have had several conversations both before and after he sent the text," jtboe79, who posts to Reddit anonymously, tells Yahoo Life. "He feels safe knowing that I will drop everything if he uses the code."
And the family in the now viral Reddit thread isn't alone: Comments on the post were filled with stories and praise from parents who have similar practices with their teens, many of whom shared their own ways of helping their kids exit a bad situation.
"We came up with the code, 'Is Grandpa OK?' for our kids if they need to be picked up from somewhere," wrote Redditor Mannings4head. "They call their grandpa 'Pop-Pop' so there is no confusion on our end, and asking about the health of a grandparent is normal enough that it wouldn't be suspicious if another kid saw the text."
"Good on you for giving your son a discreet way of getting himself out of a situation with minimal questions asked and letting him know via your actions that you can be trusted to follow through," wrote another Redditor, Solgatiger, who shared memories of their childhood code with their own parents.
"I remember the code for my family being that if we called our parents and asked for pizza it meant that we felt uncomfortable and needed to be picked up but we were not in imminent danger or in a situation that could escalate before they got there," they wrote. "If we called and asked for fish and chips, it meant that we needed someone to pick us up right away because something bad could potentially happen."
Setting up an exit strategy code with your teenager
Bert Fulks, a father of three and author of X-Plan Parenting: A Guide to Raising Strong Kids in a Challenging World created a similar code with his own children: If they text an "X," they will immediately get picked up from wherever they are, no questions asked.
Fulks, and other parents who've implemented their own codes with their teens, say there are ways to successfully create a code with your kids that works. The key is sticking to your word and not insisting they share all the details about why they reached out for help.
Develop a healthy relationship with your child
Fulks says while a code can be helpful, a random emoji or a false check-in text is not the end goal. Ultimately, an exit strategy is about building trust while giving your growing child a bit more freedom to make and handle their own decisions. "The goal is fostering strong, healthy relationships with our kids, and that comes through honest conversations," he says. "Kids who know their parents have their backs are better equipped to make the right decisions in a world that's often stacked against them."
Your kids will make mistakes. It's normal
Everybody makes mistakes (Yes, that includes parents, too.) and your teens are no exception. When a child has chosen to remove themselves from a situation, it's not the time to get angry. Instead, use it as a teachable moment for your child to learn, grow and mature.
"Parents always need to set standards and expectations and model accountability," Fulks says, "but we need to be flexible with our kids. We need to allow our kids the space and freedom to experience life and make mistakes while teaching them to navigate the pitfalls they'll face."
No questions asked. Seriously
Codes with your teen won't be effective if you breach the trust that was initially established.
"If you say 'no questions asked,' it means no questions asked," says jtboe79. "Trust is the most important thing here: If you follow through on your end, your kids will be more willing to reach out again if they ever find themselves in an uncomfortable situation. If you break the agreement, you could lose their trust forever."
Be sure to have options
Many parents agree it's easier for Mom or Dad to be the bad guy than it is for their teens to say no to their peers. Still, sometimes a teen may feel their specific situation could be better escaped through a false family emergency than an angry mom. Reddit user KahurangiNZ suggests having creative codes for all the different scenarios your teen may face.
"It's useful to have a couple of options on [reasons a child is being made to come home] so that the kid can present you to his friends as straight-laced and firm (you didn't do your chores so you have to come home right now) or compassionate and loving (Grandpa isn't feeling well so we're all going to call or visit)," they shared. "Different options may suit different scenarios."
Give teens other tools to help them succeed
While it is comforting to know that mom and dad will always have your back, it's also important for your teenager to have other resources and people to turn to.
"I have given all of my kids phone numbers of trusted adults and they know they can reach out to one of them if one of us is ever not available." says Fulks. "We have also talked about things they could say to get themselves out of an uncomfortable situation."
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